Hold Fast to Dreams: Q&A with Josh Steckel

June 30, 2014

“From a distance, our higher education system in America can seem very open, with plenty of entry points and even advantages for low-income students. But when you see up close what it’s like to try to get to and through college as a low-income student, the picture is very different. It’s an obstacle-filled landscape that is virtually impossible to navigate successfully without help.”

-- Joshua Steckel, co-author of Hold Fast to Dreams


Josh Steckel

Joshua Steckel left his job as a college counselor at a private school on the Upper East Side of Manhattan to help low-income, largely minority public-school students in Brooklyn master the perilous college admissions process. The determination of his students inspired him to collaborate with his wife, Beth Zasloff, to write the book: Hold Fast to Dreams: A College Guidance Counselor, His Students, and the Vision of a Life Beyond Poverty, which was published this spring.

Josh recently talked about the book and his students with Sponsoring Young People. First to Finish College is happy to publish an abridged version of that interview. Read the original interview here.



Sponsoring Young People (SYP): How did you and Beth come up with the idea for the book?

JS: I was floored by the power of my students’ stories from the first day I started work with them. Every student’s story was extraordinary. We both felt that these students’ stories had to be heard, that their struggles and triumphs were really heroic, and that their experiences were too often left out of the national conversation about college or reduced to grim statistics about low graduation rates or other negative life outcomes among low-income students of color. We thought that if readers had the chance to step inside these students’ experience, their stories could have the power to transform the way we think about opportunity and education in America.

SYP: The title ‘Hold Fast to Dreams,’ from the Langston Hughes poem, is especially fitting.

JS: I think the spirit of the title, ‘Hold Fast to Dreams,’ is best captured by the story of Santiago, who is undocumented. After high school graduation, Santiago is constantly being asked why he is working so hard to get to college when, without papers, a degree can’t lead to job possibilities beyond the kind of low-level manual labor he’s already doing. Santiago, who crossed the border with his mother and infant brother when he was six, really hungers for knowledge and for a way to shape his life around something more than just getting by. Despite all the doors which are very literally closed to him as he tries to enroll in a community college, he pushes through in a way that is really inspiring, even as it reveals the terrible situation students like him are stuck in.

SYP: You’ve said that your job is to “ensure that students know college is a part of their story. That if they decide not to go, it’s not because they didn’t have a choice.”

JS: When I asked a group of eleventh grade students to write a response to the question “Why College?” Rafael Padilla, one of the students in the book, wrote that college was not an option for him. Even if he wanted to go—which he didn’t—family and personal issues would make it impossible, he said. Rafael shared later, when he began to believe that college could at least be a choice for him, that it was hard enough for him to keep at bay all the negative forces in his life; that he knew most young men on his block went to jail; and that he was working 35 hours per week as a manager at a drugstore while he was also managing his mother’s medical care. How was he supposed to even think about college?

Kids need counselors and mentors who will stand beside them and look into the future with them. And then the students need the intensive, specialized support and guidance required to get through a process that is challenging even for the most highly educated families. This includes: helping students identify strong college matches, where there will be robust support structures and adequate funding; working with students as they draft and revise personal essays; arranging campus visits with high-engagement activities for younger students to build college awareness and for juniors and seniors focused on college choice; providing individualized guidance to students and families through the financial aid process; and supporting students with enrollment and the transition to college life and study.

But most public school students attend a school where there is no dedicated college counselor, and where student to counselor ratios are so high that offering real support in the college process to all students is impossible. This is a terrible injustice. The students who we know are in the most need of guidance and advocacy in envisioning and actualizing their education and future are those who receive the least. If we want higher education to actually function an engine of democracy and mobility in this country, this is a state of affairs which demands change.

SYP: What advice do you recommend to the parent of a young person who may not have the benefit of a school community with a strong college-going culture?

JS: Find adults who care. Parents, of course, are absolutely crucial in this role, but it’s too much to ask of parents alone. More affluent parents often depend on the services of college counselors, tutors, independent counselors, cultural capital and powerful networks–and low-income parents often have to contend with other barriers to supporting their children as fully as they’d like.

There are a number of terrific community-based organizations that incorporate quality college counseling and mentoring into their work. These vary according to where a student lives, but some great programs I have worked with in the New York City area include Bottom Line, the Door, the Double Discovery Center, the Opportunity Network, the Options CenterSponsors for Educational Opportunity, STEP (Science and Technology Entry Program) programs at Baruch, NYU, and Long Island University, and Urban Ambassadors. Families can also go to NYC College Line, at www.nyccollegeline.org, which has a great search engine for support programs in the city.

Intensive guidance and support services are also crucial on campus, especially for low-income and first-generation college students. When looking at potential colleges, families need to ensure that colleges are making a well-articulated commitment to offering the academic, social, and financial support necessary for college success.

SYP: What do you want people to take from the book?

A. Our hope is that those in positions of power will appreciate the urgency of giving kids like those in the book a chance. We need to rethink who our education system really serves and build structures that enable young people to create the future they deserve.

This blog is part of the First to Finish College blog project, produced jointly by Demos and SparkAction. 
This post originally appeared on Sponsoring Young People and is reprinted here with permission.